Friday, October 31, 2008

illustrations of artwork

and I would add to these citations from some of Mark Karelson's exquisite political work, had I permission.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

this could wait till next Wednesday, but I'll forget: one more note on beauty and politics

"Terry Eagleton has said that '[s]ometime around the turn of the nineteenth century, the left fatally surrendered the aesthetic to the right,' leaving the left 'doubly disabled,' caught in a dilemma between cutting itself off from many of the people’s most important real aspirations and expressing them in a language 'confiscated by political reaction' (34)."

—Rodger Cunningham, in a re-evaluation of his book on Appalachian culture, Apples on the Flood: Minority Discourse and Appalachia, quoting Eagleton’s essay “Nationalism: Irony and Commitment.” in Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Edward Said, Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1990. 23-39.

As one who has long campaigned against the Left's devotion to puritanical plug-ugliness as being somehow more in touch with the essential ugliness of the life of "the people," I hold up the exquisite aesthetic qualities of Shepard Fairey's HOPE poster, which has been productively stolen by the people for use in contexts far beyond its original purpose as an Artists for Obama image:

—Wait, I don't have to find a jpeg and insert it here, do I? y'all know what that poster looks like, even if you haven't seen Robert Indiana's re-invention of HOPE in terms of his famous LOVE image.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

some shows have early closing dates even if the election does also

Two or Three Ideas:
Gregor Turk at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, Peter Bahouth at Marcia Wood Gallery, Jacob Collins and the Water Street Atelier at Atlanta Art Gallery

Two shows currently in Atlanta interrogate the dynamics of representation, from opposite perspectives. A third exhibition, like the fabled former Seinfeld series, is a show about nothing, or as close to nothing as something can be that once held a message.

To borrow the closing line of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man,” Gregor Turk’s dual show at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery of “Interstate 50” and ”Blank” shows us “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

“Interstate 50” is a ten-year series of photographs of blank billboards. They, like the Interstate that does not exist (even though it appears on at least one older mini-map as a trap for copyright violators), are representations of absence where there was supposed to be presence.

The billboards, photographed in various landscapes, have no advertising messages because they are sited on roads that are not much traveled any longer, or roads that have failed to sustain commerce for some other reason. Sometimes they are almost proudly blank, other times they are crumbling from neglect, and as often as not, time and weather have left faint traces of what might have been onetime messages obliterated beneath a whiteness as terribly void as the whiteness of the whale that Herman Melville rhetoricized in Moby-Dick.

By contrast, Turk’s closeup photographs of walls on which graffiti have recently been obliterated echo the conventions of mid-20th-century abstract painting, resembling color fields or, in one case, clearly imitating Mark Rothko. Printed at an intimate scale, they need to be well-nigh monumental.

(Which reminds me of Joe Peragine’s lexicon for gallerygoers who want to give the illusion of being knowledgeable: ‘Instead of saying ‘Sure is small,’ say ‘How intimate.’ Instead of saying “Sure is big,’ say ‘My, it’s monumental.’” Yes, Joe, you’re right.)

Turk’s photographs, of course, are carefully isolated slices of reality, unmanipulated except in terms of the angle of vision.

By contrast, Peter Bahouth’s stereoscopic photos of female collaborators in “Sadie’s Choice” at Marcia Wood Gallery are thoroughly theatrical, as theatrical as anything Gregory Crewdson or Katy Grannan ever did. (Grannan is the better comparison here.) There is no manipulation of the image, but the manipulation of the scene itself is total.

Bahouth asked a dozen women to create scenes for self-portraiture that paid homage to pin-ups of the mid-20th-century (so the 1940s and 1950s are being referenced in more ways than one in October 2008). He himself would offer no suggestions nor would he do anything as photographer that would influence the dynamics of a session in which each subject would have all the power and the photographer would be a willing accomplice.

Unfortunately, expectation influences outcome, and all the women took the idea of glamorous retro self-representation all too literally. They posed in pools or bubble baths, or surrounded themselves with exotica that would have been appropriate for the way in which their ethnicity would have been represented circa 1950. The famous Betty Page and the glamour shots of Bunny Yeager are all too well celebrated not to come into mental play, no matter how autonomous Bahouth wanted his empowered subjects to be.

What would have happened if Bahouth hadn’t referred to the stereoscopic erotica that existed back in the day, or self-consciously avoided any historically laden terms and just said, “I want you to think up a photo session that represents yourself the way you really want to be represented.”

Probably a good many of them would have taken their clothes off and the results might have been much more problematic for public exhibition than these pleasingly tame vintage images. Katie Grannan’s subjects certainly seem to long for maximum exposure for the most part, or at least take it for granted as part of the photo process.

But Katie Grannan has already done that. It made sense for Bahouth to try to address the problem of power relations as someone wielding a distinctive vintage mode of photography that demands that something unusual be done in homage to its history.

And it is valuable to realize just how widespread the hip knowledge of retro glamour shots really is. Bahouth was right to expect creativity from his subjects, but it was the terms of engagement that led all of them to versions of what had already been done, and to try to replicate the style of photography that was all the rage fifty years ago.

In other words, these women have absorbed the history of the image. Less visually inundated and less hip subjects might have shown the counter-influence of more contemporary styles of sexual display, and something unintentionally revealing (pun sort of intended) might have resulted.

The subjects were pretty much self-selected, and from pretty much the same background, according to persons who know some of them independently.

It might have been more educational to ask feminist academicians to pose for photographs that simultaneously reflected retro photographic traditions and reflected their own sense of themselves as sexual beings. But we have had quite a bit of that genre in recent years, and it would have made little enough sense for Bahouth to go into a situation already fraught with argument as to whether he was surrendering his identity or not.

So Bahouth’s experiment may have been an instructive failure, in terms of eliciting retro literalism instead of innovative metaphor.

Perhaps the subgenres that one encounters in the world these women inhabit do not encourage mixing and matching, but only a hiply ironic stance towards doing it and getting it right? I don’t know one way or the other, and wouldn’t presume to say that such is the case. But there has to be some reason why they chose not to violate the historicity of the situations they created, why they were unable to step outside the frame established for them by old photo conventions and even older expectations.

As with the popular revivals of burlesque, is it just a matter of enjoying with amusement what an older generation took very seriously as the way things ought to be, and an intervening generation tsk-tsked over as oppressive?

Not altogether dissimilar questions might be asked of the painters in “Jacob Collins and the Water Street Atelier” at Atlanta Art Gallery, except that these younger practitioners of a very old style of representation do show occasional flashes of irony, as in a creepy vanitas image of a jawless skull juxtaposed with an iPod.

But mostly the students of Jacob Collins have elected to make realist paintings that are hauntingly beautiful, a few echoing seventeenth-century Dutch still life but most reflecting a time that is our own, but not our time as we usually see it.

The portraits in particular make one realize the importance of scale in this tradition; the photographs in the little catalogue produced by the gallery sometimes look embarrassingly inconsequential when the paintings themselves are emotion-provoking near-masterworks. When personal style is suppressed in favor of realist representational conventions, small details become crucial and the size of the image even more so. Lacking the metaphysical vigor of the Dutch precursors, these artists present a world as it might yet be, an implicit utopia that might have delighted Ernst Bloch: a sense of reverie that creates space for dreaming and thus, according to Bloch’s heretical philosophic vision, for hope.

And these days we can use all the hope we can get, not to mention imaginative space in a world crowded, as Bahouth’s show reveals, with conventional images. Sometimes a re-imagining of an unfashionable tradition is the most revolutionary act of all.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hope and despair (climbing the third stair)

There are a huge number of pressing issues in the Atlanta artworld and I have drafted commentaries on some of them, but the election is so much more important than any artworld topic that I am considering a moratorium until everyone I know can attest that they have cast a ballot in favor of what is best for the American nation in a time of unparalleled crisis (not the greatest of crises taken individually, but a combination requiring skills in improvisation and intelligence and willingness to adapt to situations never before encountered....).

Robert Indiana has created a lovely icon for this historical moment, but I won't violate copyright by reproducing it here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

High time for the masterpieces

There is little enough time left to see "The Louvre and the Masterpiece" at the High Museum of Art unimpeded, before the dreaded Terra Cotta Warriors arrive and swamp us all in a sea of cultural tourism as their intrinsic mass appeal is coupled with the Carlos Museum's traveling objects from the tomb of King Tut.

Alongside such well-known astonishing artworks as the Vermeer illustrated here, the High's exhibition contains any number of less famous but genuinely amazing objects that justify the wearisome term "masterpiece"...even if there are those who would prefer some less-polluted circumlocution such as "really, really, really, really good stuff."

The Murillo painting shown here is one such aesthetic surprise, as much for its support as for its style.

Murillo used an Aztec divination mirror to provide the effect of the absolutely dark night in which Christ is about to be scourged by the soldiers. The obsidian gave him a desirable tone of black, and never mind the expected conventions of panel painting. Once the uses of Aztec obsidian were understood, a new subgenre of Spanish art was born. (Actually, there has to be an extensive and significant history behind the origins of that subgenre, and it was my webquest for that history that led to the digression that follows....)

A little bit of Google research turns up a contemporary show by Pedro Lasch (which is also a contemporaneous one, for Lasch's installation is at the Nasher Museum in Durham, NC until January 18, 2009) that makes use of the history of black mirrors for a work of installation art in which the metaphor of the black mirror is used as a tool for contemplating both the legacy of the indigenous art of the ancient Americas and contemporary philosophical and political concerns. (Lasch's conceptual ambition justifies a descriptive sentence as long as some of Joe Biden's speeches.)

Lasch provides considerable background on the uses and associations of the Aztec obsidian mirrors: "The Aztecs directly associated obsidian with Tezcatlipoca, the deadly god of war, sorcery and sexual transgression. Threatened by similar associations with sorcery and deviance, Pope John XXII banned the use of mirrors for any religious purpose in 1318. Yet centuries later, obsidian plates of all shapes and sizes would be introduced into Christian altars across Spain and its colonies, eventually becoming the surface on which artists, including Spanish baroque master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, would paint saints and virgins."

Murillo's mirror transformed for devotional purposes stands on its own as a significant historical and aesthetic artifact, especially in the diverse company it keeps at the High, where, paradoxically, the diversity of astonishing objects encourages the independent contemplation of each object's virtues, and of the historical context within which an object of such excellent complexity was created. (The show also features a few adroit juxtapositions of good-but-not-great examples of a genre next to the really, really, really, really good piece, to encourage us to think about what justifies that string of "really"s to describe the...okay, I'll use the word...masterpiece. There is also a singularly educative situation in which a subpar work by a big name is outshone by a piece by one of his imitators.)

As installed in dramatic isolation at the High, the archaic Greek sculpture known as the Lady of Auxerre seems so self-evidently superb that it is difficult to re-imagine how it could have been used as an incidental hatrack in the town museum where a curator from the Louvre discovered it a century ago. But this cluttered photograph from another context makes clear how stunningly elegant objects can look like nothing much at all when viewed from a bad angle and surrounded by competing visual stimuli:

At the High, this sculpture gets the respected viewing situation it deserves. And that helps, a lot, in terms of really seeing what is already there. This is one case where putting something literally on a pedestal encourages insightful viewing rather than unreflective reverence.

The whole show is an exercise in learning to look. And that makes it a more than suitable conclusion to this three-year succession of exhibitions. This one is worthy of repeated viewings, which the arrival of The First Emperor's sculptural retinue in mid-November will render very difficult.

So get out there and look while this is the only blockbuster show drawing the crowds.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

notes on making sense of Zhang Dali

An interview with Zhang Dali in, I think, the September issue of Artvoices clarified greatly the sources of the "Slogans" series now at Kiang Gallery. It is important to know how he acquires these generic identity photos in flea markets and overlays repeated versions of the helpful slogans posted by the Chinese government for popular consumption.

Slogans on banners or posters have been a part of Chinese life for a long time, but the content of these cheerful, snappy (in the original) pieces of self-help propaganda is quite distinct. It is also, for people like Zhang Dali (who, before recent events devalued the word, we might once have called "mavericks"), annoyingly condescending.

Hence the overlay of slogan overburden on generic faces of "the people."

This is more conceptually opaque than the artist's earlier work, even after someone tells us about the current ubiquity of this particular genre of slogan (which visitors to the Beijing Olympics saw in profusion).

Even for viewers of a certain age, it is difficult to appreciate the exact nuance here. Some of us grew up before the disappearance of the annoyingly universal public service ads telling us to break all matches before discarding, because only we can prevent forest fires. They made city dwellers who never went near a national forest feel like becoming pyromaniacs on general principle.

But for Chinese of the generation after the declaration of "To get rich is glorious," the admonitions of the nanny state almost certainly have a different resonance. This is especially likely since Zhang Dali's work has been so comprehensively a commentary on the difference between the old China and the new...the old being the country that used to describe itself as New China before the arrival of the new and improved product under the same management.

And it was new, before, as is the way of history, it became something different.

And Zhang Dali has explored its mores in terms of altered photography pre-Photoshop:

How reality is prettified or obscured in photographs is one of his particular interests. How language is poured over individual lives for well-meaning but overwhelming purposes is presumably another.

But we are left, or I am, with the feeling that his work requires the presence of wall text (beyond simple translation), or explication by someone on the premises. The innocent eye, or the untrained American eye, anyway, simply cannot contextualize the work in terms of what appears obvious to sophisticated observers onsite in the home country.

And this is typically the case with all but the most blatant of global conceptual art, even the works that appear to be dealing with universal issues. The universal is always presented in particular inflections, even as it reminds us of that which makes the human species an ultimate unity.

ask and ye shall receive, even if nobody heard the question

Quite independently from my query, I learned that E K is planning a show at Solomon Projects that will be a significant departure from earlier work. Excellent news.

Wendy Given's large photographs of the Pacific rain forest (that's what they call the forest around Portland, OR) turn out to be transmutations of Northern European folk tales with significant parallels in other cultures.

Given and her husband do the set-ups with taxidermied animals and decoys and costumes onsite, then add incidental Photoshop effects here and there, accentuating features that already suggest elements out of folklore.

The Peanut Elves are even more amazing once you realize that these are documentary photos of elf-faces from raw peanuts that have, at most, been minimally enhanced with a bit of carving to add a second eye to a face that already is a natural formation.

Given has had to open several thousand raw peanuts to find the nineteen elf faces (so far) of which a selection is presented in these immensely enlarged views. I, for one, had never heard of this wedding of Germanic folklore and Southern folkways until Given described her childhood in which her mother set her to looking for elf faces in peanuts as a means of relieving boredom.

I haven't yet had time to survey the other Atlanta blogs, but I hope someone has taken detail shots of the forest photographs, as the scale is important: most of the interesting details vanish in onscreen views.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

missing in actions

Does anyone know the whereabouts of E. K. Huckaby? I found myself wondering if his taxidermied creatures of the late 1980s had any kinship with Joan Fontcuberta's "Fauna," since E. K. was in conversation with strains of art that few in Atlanta had any idea about.

missing entirely too much too much of the time

There are at least half a dozen shows needing to be contextualized, from the meticulously Old-Masterish realism at Atlanta Art Gallery to the visions of the later 21st century at Whitespace, with fantastic realism in photography in between at Solomon Projects and photographs of urban (sur)reality at Barbara Archer.

Then there is the question of what people see when they look at Zhang Dali at Kiang and why they do not see it. Even providing translations is not the same as providing context. (I first wrote about this problem of international contexts in "Magicians of the Earth on a Stormy Monday" in the Artlanta catalogue in 1995, and the difficulty has not gone away since.)

And then there is the problem of having even a minimal life and pursuing one's own projects.

Maybe on Sunday...I hope the other blogs have already taken up the slack for most of the venues named above.

Friday, October 17, 2008

v for ... well, for something, anyway

The coincidentally concurrent closing (at month's end) of Vaknin and Vinson Galleries is offset by the appearance of more than one new gallery (Emily Amy and William Turner being cases in point) and more commensurately, by the reopening soon of Saltworks and Get This! as neighbors.

It is the non-buying segment of the art public that is most impacted by hard times in the global economy: It is already the case that some of the city's truly cool art (along with a great deal of work that falls into an opposite category) is never seen by anyone but the art rep and the purchaser.

Certain galleries have long complained that they're sick of providing entertainment and free wine for the masses and a few have followed the example set by David Heath in the last years of Heath Gallery, and have turned their opening receptions into invitation-only affairs, what the British so aptly call private views.

But unlike the case with most of the city's public exhibition spaces for art, it still costs nothing to walk into the gallery and look, and at least one gallery has complained that even if they present globally famous artists, scarcely anyone comes to view the work.

The perennial dilemma in Atlanta is that, as another gallery owner famously said, the galleries are not museums, and the market is the ultimate determinant of whether or not they keep their doors open.

Lately, more and more gallery owners have been realizing that the only way they can afford to sell art is not to pay rent on a public space, and in more than one case, to have a day job to support their habit of wanting to represent artists.

The alternative-space owners have always already had day jobs to support their habit of exhibiting work by emerging artists.

Art has always gotten made and shown even under the worst circumstances; I think of the Carlos Museum show of Liubov Popova's Spatial Force Constructions, which were painted on cardboard (a couple of decades before the onetime slave Bill Traylor used the same material in Montgomery) and folded for transport in a suitcase at one of the more difficult moments of the Russian Civil War.

So we will continue to have art and performance no matter what happens. But only those who have watched the scene crawl back painfully from economic downturns, with certain niches left unfilled by successors to vanished institutions, will feel inclined towards hoping for the best even for those spaces which one happens not to like very much. It would be a shame to see the scene end up divided between a scrappy underground art scene and a set of investment-grade and to-the-trade-only dealers equally invisible to the general public, who will continue to turn out only for the most obvious of and blatant of blockbuster exhibitions. As why should they not; since the print media can only write about what is available locally, how can anyone outside the art scene itself ever find out what they're missing because it has never been exhibited where they can see it?

Heck, leaving aside the recent lecture I probably can't write about for reasons of conflict of interest, tonight we have competing lectures by Martha Rosler and Alfredo Jaar. I bet hardly anybody in the general public is wringing their hands at having to choose between two legendary figures of activist art, or at having to decide how they can also go support the highly regarded artists who are having openings at the same time.

too few hours in the day...notes on newness

Eventually there will have to be some way of compensating people for their time and wear and tear on equipment (unless they use the public library's computers)...I am sure that all the Atlanta bloggers could spend the better part of an eight-hour day writing proper commentary on what's going on around the city.

Item: Gregor Turk's tenth-anniversary showing of the "Interstate 50" blank billboard series alongside new photos of walls where the painting over of graffiti has created inadvertent allusions to color field painting and, in one case, to Mark Rothko.

This show at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery is accompanied by two elegant volumes from Shutterfly that constitute catalogues of the two series. They are elegant because Turk designed them, of course. The same principle applies to the lovely catalogue of the Swiss and American cut-paper pieces currently at the Papermaking Museum at Georgia Tech. Blurb manufactured that one, once again to the standards set by the designer who uploaded it.

The advance over where was in its pioneer days (i.e., three or four years ago) is marked and remarkable. We're in an era in which there is no excuse for putting out a shoddy publication if it's actually being purchased rather than given away.

There are a good many other things to discuss, probably better separated out in terms of posts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

a very quick note on Thomas McEvilley

Thomas McEvilley, who began life as a classicist, branched out to write about global contemporary art before global contemporary art was cool. In more recent years he has been collecting his essays on such topics as conceptual and performance art.

And now he has published a new book on Sappho, a reminder that he never quite quit writing about the ancient Greeks as well as about the global reach of contemporary forms of art.

The book is from Spring Publications, and lists it as though it were incredibly rare, only one copy available from one of their sellers. But in fact it has just been published, and apparently is simply not in their warehouse yet.

I mention all this not because many readers of counterforces care about scholarly studies of Sappho, but because not many practicing art critics still publish books in their original specialties. Arthur Danto, whom I first encountered through his Nietzsche as Philosoper, hasn't published a book devoted solely to philosophy in a decade, and a flood of titles devoted to his essays on contemporary art.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"The torch is passed to a new generation." The torch...what happened to the torch? was right here a minute ago

The familiar quotation from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address is also an obscure allusion to Karl Kraus' fabled magazine of social critique Die Fackel (usually only referred to as such, but as the current issue of the New York Review of Books reminds us, the title's English translation is The Torch).

And that's an appropriate lead-in for a plug for a new Atlanta art-reviewing website, Burn Away, at It is attempting to bridge the various gulfs in the Atlanta art worlds, though so far its practitioners are still happier writing about the spaces they already frequent, so we are unlikely to see reviews of the Signature Shop or Atlanta Art Gallery any time soon.

Which is fine, although somebody needs to evaluate Atlanta Art Gallery's would-be blockbuster "Jacob Collins and the Water Street Atelier," for example, and the Signature Shop is still the longest-surviving craft gallery in the city, which in itself is reason for commemoration.

We are in dire need of a single print-plus-online source for art information that will link the art public with artists and the venues that exhibit them, and the problem that confronts us in Atlanta is how to produce something that will appeal to all social strata and ethnicities and political points of view...or at least annoy all of them equally. It's okay it becomes the source they love to hate, but that they go to because there isn't anything else they trust for information, and because, daggone it, they like a lot of the stuff in it.

Right now we don't even have a fully reliable source for information, though we have a lot of different blogs and websites serving different communities.

And at a moment when the survival of a healthy art community depends on the circulation of information as well as money, that is a distinct problem that needs to be addressed, if not ASAP, then even sooner. It is an excellent time to revive the slogan from back in the day, "Be realistic. Demand the impossible."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

a piece of sententious and possibly fatuous advice

Go buy something from a small and/or low-end gallery. The world's financial wizards have accomplished what the terrorists could not.

The time is now. The collapse of confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it is far harder to rebuild networks than to keep them in precarious existence.

Only you know what your disposable income is at this point, and only you know which artspace you would miss most if it went away.

As it was not in September 2001, strategically situated spending is a patriotic act. At least as far the local artworld is concerned.

I know who I would like to recommend you do business with or donate to, but my opinion wouldn't mean much, anyway.

I do know that there are art institutions we can scarcely afford to lose, and too many of them operate too close to the edge in the best of times.

I would add that there are exceptionally cool objects on view right now at the institutions that will survive anything short of total apocalypse, and it would be shortsighted to forego seeing them just because those places don't need your money.

Just be aware that your present short-term decisions will affect the look of the long-term future in the entire community.

the right uses of riches

No sooner had I begun reflecting on different religions' grappling with "the right use of riches" than Oglethorpe Museum of Art announced the arrival from the Rubin Museum of Art of a few works depicting Tibet's "wealth-creating deities," which have heretofore been omitted from exhibitions emphasizing the Buddhist tradition of detachment and renunciation.

"In the Himalayan tradition of Tantric Buddhism, there is a class of deities dedicated to granting and guarding wealth. This divine category appears contradictory, coming from a belief system that is identified with nonattachment to material well-being. Nonetheless, it is justified by the belief that wealth can provide freedom from the cares of human life that divert us from finding a path to liberation from suffering. In the hands of one who seeks enlightenment, wealth may become an instrument of compassion and a means to achieve spiritual goals."

There are more secular traditions that have asserted similar things with regard to any goal whatsoever; I recall one hardscrabble thinker who asserted that the familiar saying "Money is the root of all evil" should be modified to "The lack of money is the root of many ills."

The more general maxim is that when you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember you came to drain the swamp.

And the traditions are down on grasping in general; but that is another story, and another genre of artwork.

genteel gospels and socially engaged art

Whatever one thinks of the two Reinike paintings in the previous post (and they aren't compositionally his strongest, by any means), they do encode the social teachings of a Christian church that has only been able to excuse its more reactionary moments by overemphasizing the poor's rewards in heaven and ignoring the Gospels' condemnation of the consequences of wealth here on earth.

I have long insisted that while it is a mistake to ignore formalist issues (if a message-laden work is too cluttered or outright ugly, it is hard to get an audience to look at it), there are artworks that gain enormously in interest because of when and where they were created. I still remember my sense of surprise when I first encountered Reinike's Cacophony, an extremely polite but blunt reminder that the frenetic laying up of treasures on earth then going on had an air of the Golden Calf about them. One didn't expect to find such sentiments expressed openly in the context of an immensely reserved and literate appreciation for the accomplishments of traditional culture, but Reinike has always been a very genteel version of the big-picture kind of guy, and I've grown accustomed to surprises from his work.

I free-associated my way to recollecting Reinike paintings, which I hadn't thought of in some time, by way of thinking about the late Atlanta folk artist Ned Cartledge's social-commentary bas-relief panels from the Reagan years. I'm surprised to find almost no images of them online, though a Nexus Press book reproducing them is still available from the Contemporary.

Cartledge was an enormously reflective working-class progressive, an anti-racist Southern white who once produced an image of Uncle Sam crucified as a protest against those who were putting religion to regressive political uses.

In decades when Southern folk art (I leave to one side the then-controversial "African-American vernacular art" championed by William Arnett) was identified with flamboyant showmen and rural apocalypticists, Cartledge was a quietly urbane urban folk artist making witty but carefully reasoned points about the condition of society.

These two artists have almost nothing in common, except that each one's work goes against the prevailing stereotypes associated with his position in the art world.

The only lesson to be drawn from this is that the South, and the planet in general, is a much more complicated place than we think. And short of going into the two-thousand-word explications of the sort in which I indulge on the joculum.livejournal blog, that is a fairly pathetic excuse for a conclusion, but it's the best I can do at the moment.

Friday, October 10, 2008


It's interesting that some of the most relevant paintings in Atlanta right now were made by one of the most tradition-aware and stylistically traditional painters, Charles H. Reinike III, the latest of whose tradition-focused "Arches Series" are about to be exhibited at Reinike Gallery (well, actually, as of mid-November, which in times of fast-breaking events is more like half an eternity from now).

Cacophony and Three Temples are unfashionably wedded to blatantly traditional symbolism, and will not be to everyone's taste, but I've always liked Reinike's image of the stock market graph flatlining, as in an EKG of the world of financial exchange. It's the credit markets rather than the stock exchange, which has lately been in free fall reflected in the shape of the charts, but the free fall is related to the flatlining of finance: no one ever expected the world's economic ministers to be performing CPR on a world of interbank credit that has unexpectedly gone into total arrest.

And yet a painter came up with a lovely little visual metaphor for it before it happened. One of the painters least naturally inclined to political activism, at that.

I'm sure the image has occurred to many other people, but Reinike came up with it on his own.

And little surprises like this are why I like to go to all kinds of galleries, from underground to upscale...most of the time they are exactly what you expect, but it is the unexpected encounters and moments of illumination that make one inclined to keep trying to write about art.

That "trying to" is subject matter for a later post. We in Atlanta are in need of some creative re-inventing in the world of art reviewing, of the method of providing information and of connecting audience and artist, as the world is in need of creative re-invention in the domain of global financial markets.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

more of the same (more of the same, for at least the next three weeks, as Ian Scholes used to say)

I woke this morning thinking about Bill Boling’s images of stuff for sale in New Zealand and in the good ole U.S.A., and how New Zealand’s long sense of exceptionalism outdoes the United States’ in terms of its historical simplicity: The treaty of Waitangi was adhered to or violated, the country grew and matured, and eventually it was acknowledged that the Maori have gotten the short end of the stick rather more often than not in the development of a nation that for many years was mostly a replica of Britain, with the addition of picturesque glaciers and a parallel Polynesian culture.

But the wars in which New Zealand participated were always far away, and even when the Pacific War came to its doorstep, the doorstep was still in less immediate danger of suffering a home invasion than in, say, Australia.

And the deceptively placid state of ethnic relations spared the place from the paradoxes of all those Pacific colonies where the chiefs or kings (depending on what foreign word was being used that year to describe the local dignitaries) often enough invited in the colonizers, on the grounds that organized exploitation was better than incessant piracy and raids by freebooters looking for manpower for the coconut plantations.

Except in ward politics in a few American cities, Americans haven’t been used to dealings in which the big power to the west was implored to conquer the country because it was less rapacious than the big power to the east, or ones in which the now-dominant ethnicity was invited in to protect the locals against the sea raiders, or ones in which the contending ethnic groups come not in dualities, but in sets of fourteen or twenty.

Now Americans are having to get used to the sorts of variables that other parts of the world have had to deal with for millennia, and we don’t like it very much. You bet we don’t.

The sense of rapidly sliding variables is rising in the Atlanta art scene, as well.

The scene has developed recently in ways even more splintered than usual, and those of us with night-vision issues and aging automobiles frequently find we can’t get even to the things we would like to be seeing. So there is more need than ever for second-hand information we can count on, including summaries of the lectures we couldn’t attend.

But no one is paying for that type of information, so the few stories that appear in print sources are focused on the primary interests of a particular readership. This is as it should be in a world in which art shows are many and pages of print are few, but audiences also are many. The problem is that none of them want to contribute to providing a source of comprehensive coverage, since the few efforts in that direction in the distant past have been financial failures.

So in lieu of having enough reviewing, we now find ourselves dependent on the good will of bloggers who spend their own money and wear themselves and their digital cameras out in the pursuit of art reportage.

But as I’ve said before, those of us who find ourselves spending hours at our laptops just working through e-mails and doing minimal updating simply can’t remember to click through every art blog in Atlanta. And no single one of the blogs is a go-to source for everything, despite more than one effort to create a blog on which everyone would post.

The simplest solution would be a site imitating Arts and Letters Daily, on which a set of editors would produce smart capsule summaries with links to the full-length blog posts. Good old aldaily is usually colorful in its summaries without distorting the content of the articles to which the teasers link, so one could imagine something comparable, like “Nobody thinks much about Finno-Ugric art these days. Counterforces wants to put a stop to that….” Or for locally focused stories: “Joe Blow Gallery’s new space calls itself ‘aggressively stupid.’ Bare and Bitter Sleep agrees [link] while Ghostmap Microwave thinks there isn’t nearly enough aggression [link] and newcomer False Alternatives thinks it isn’t nearly stupid enough [link].”

My original idea was to keep the hypothetical resource focused on art and mostly on art in Atlanta, so as to avoid links like “so-and-so has posted pictures of peanut butter again” or “Jerry Cullum is going on again about why nobody reads the Alexandria Quartet anymore.” Bloggers ought not to feel obligated to make themselves into pundits (although punditry doesn’t seem to stop Maureen Dowd or David Brooks from writing occasionally about almost anything they please); and if nothing else, incredibly cute animal pictures break up the solemnity. Except for readers who are just trying to figure out what shows opened last weekend and what is in them.

So we still need some kind of substitute for the adequate art reviewing that Atlanta does not have. Preferably organized by someone who does not start out somewhere near Auckland before getting to the main topic. (By the way, you know what kind of society you will be dealing with when the names of its primary geographic features are the North Island and the South Island, although the bygone givers of place names are no more than distant relatives of those who promoted the dickens out of Lord of the Rings tourism a few years back.)

Friday, October 3, 2008

more guides for the perplexed

Like Senator Biden, I need to learn how to summarize my points in fewer than ten thousand words. You betcha, as Garrison Keillor's Minnesota Language Systems taught us to say many years ago.

I have been rambling round the thickets of genetics versus social constructionism in order to take issue both with much of what I learned back in the day and with what many readers out there have learned in the day after that.

I started out studying the world before sociobiology reduced us all to a gene's way of making another gene, but long after Husserl and Wittgenstein had declared that the taken-for-granteds of the "natural attitude" were not going to hack it. I cut my metaphorical eyeteeth (whatever those are) on Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality, which was enough to make me understand that we not only don't start out as blank slates once we learn our first words of language, we are shaped by the state of conversation around us without having to have the ideas drilled into us by the school system or our parents. (The book left out huge chunks of important conceptual issues and is now very, very out of date as well as defective, but it was a start.)

When I started writing newspaper reviews, I took positions that promptly got me irate members of my peer group buttonholing me to tell me how ignorant I was. And I was, though incorporating their criticisms into my next review was not the way to repair ths deficiency.

Very early on I realized I was writing for a wide variety of audiences, and for reasons expounded by Messrs Berger and Luckmann, those who loved one particular style were likely to have (what to them seemed like) "good reasons" for dissing the other guys' beloved kinds of art.

So while trying to develop terminology within which to describe what makes a work of art succeed within its own terms and its own game (its own "form of life," if you will), I felt obligated to say "If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you will like," and let the fact of limited numbers of column inches speak for the assertion that the show was worth visiting for at least some reason.

The subtlety of compressed discourse fed artists' natural paranoia, I also discovered; a single adjective suggesting that a show might be somewhat less epoch-making than the Salon des Refusés in the nineteenth century or "Freeze" in twentieth-century London was taken to be a clue that I hated the artist's work with a passion. It wasn't so.

But working around artists who had actually taken to their bed after a withering review and who would rather have their name mentioned in a laundry list than go completely unrecognized made for some interesting distortions in my perception.

So my feeling is that we need a twenty-first century style of art writing that will address twenty-first century knowledge about the human condition: writing that will stretch the boundaries of audience perception by understanding who various types of readers are, and that will present reasons for finding disagreeable work worthy of consideration, whether the work is disagreeable because it is a sugary Impressionist knockoff with a contemporary difference or because it is an intelligent version of the worst lowbrow-style crossbreeding of anime with an earlier generation's comic-book sensibilities. There are reasons why even generally disrespected genres and strategies can give birth to good art, and even more reasons why genres currently worshipped by the art magazines can produce primarily appalling work.

We need, somehow, to grow into the century that is now almost a tenth of the way through, and into the new millennium (accordingly to the commonly accepted calendar) that is looking ever more millennial in terms of shifts in our most fundamental levels of knowledge. This goes for art as much as for other aspects of human society.

The problem is that newspaper reviews (when there are reviews at all, and focus groups tend to say they don't want them) only allow enough space to say "Y'all should come see this, and here's one reason why y'all ought to do that." It becomes ever more difficult to figure out how to educate an audience that not only does not have time for two thousand word blog posts, they have been given no good reason why they should spend any of their time looking for two thousand word blog posts.

In order to educate, we have first to stir interest.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

a further guide for the perplexed (as regards counterforces, the blog, anyway)

Newcomers to Counterforces will not realize that I sometimes make outrageous statements for the sake of clarifying a discussion. (Saying things I don’t necessarily mean also provides useful cover for those frequent occasions wherein, as in the idiom that was commonplace in my youth, I have my cranium completely surrounded by my rectal cavity.)

Dutton’s The Art Instinct, treated so laboriously in the previous post, provides a list of operative universals regarding the work of art. If he finds similar attitudes at work on the Sepik River and in the Seattle suburbs (I cite the latter only for alliteration, but Dutton loves to quote the sources he spoke with on the Sepik), it’s most likely a trait built into us by evolution.

Cultural determinists have gone overboard in denying biological universals (an odd response to earlier racist theories, since it would be useful to realize that everybody has a structurally similar mix of inherent traits, if such is the case). But the efforts of the inheritors of sociobiology to pin it all on our genes won’t fly either (nor will they wash, for that matter).

Dutton, like almost all of us, tends to cherry-pick his examples to support his argument and his prejudgments. Downplaying difference has its uses even if it creates the “problem” of finding the biological reasons why minority practices exist, but one sees why difference has tended to be absolutized in recent decades.

And yet difference isn’t the deciding factor any more than sameness is. Some emotions and attitudes really are the default positions, and cultures devote their efforts to reinforcing or modifying or canceling altogether those particular predispositions.

It takes a great deal of looking (or being charmed by wall niches in Victorian buildings and Addison-Mizner-era arcades in Florida) to think that Duchamp’s Fountain looks like anything but a urinal resting on its flat side, and I am prepared to accept that Duchamp wouldn’t have known an architectural niche if one violated the laws of physics concerning inanimate objects and came up and bit him in the ass…or I would be prepared to accept that if it weren’t for the fact that all his other artworks are so daggumed pretty. Pretty offensive, maybe, but pretty.

Michael Graves’ toilet brush makes me happy every time I look at it (or at the holder that conceals the brush, more accurately). I am perfectly prepared to accept that my association of its form with, say, Asian and European pottery traditions is not shared by the vast majority of users, who would prefer a brush that they can stick in the corner and forget about it. And I am perfectly willing to admit that it requires a particular independence from received opinion about what a toilet brush should look like in order to find that this object fills an emotional need that I didn’t even know I had until I saw its fulfillment. And that particular kind of detachment is, yes, related to social class (the particular social group into which one has been thrust by choice or circumstances), rather than ethnic origin or sexual preference. And given the uneven distribution of sensory equipment, I can imagine that there are those who think of toilet brushes in terms of sculpture who would still rather have a PBR and countertop-perked Maxwell House instead of a Three Philosophers and some Italianate variation on stepping one’s coffee down a notch with steamed milk or up a notch with techniques comparable to those derived once in points farther east. So one’s place in the social order isn’t really the determining factor, just the situation that makes one’s particular options possible. And the genetic factors that go into ethnic origins and sexual preference also go into what kind of beer one likes (or if one likes beer at all), and genetic factors matter more than we think. But neither biology nor society (what used to be called “nature and culture”) explains the situation unless both factors are seen as operative in different proportions.

In other words, I take issue with much of standard-issue cultural studies as I do with standard-issue sociobiology, and I am happy that the new generation of interdisciplinary sciences is providing us with the raw material for a revisionary aesthetics that breaks out of the unproductive debates that have crippled the past generation of academic discourse.

Now let us get back to the unpleasant fact that the global economic order is teetering on the verge of collapse, and to pondering who did it, and why. The Law of Unintended Consequences is an explanation but not an excuse for those who inadvertently unhinged the whole structure of late capitalism while inventing new ways to pursue self-interest.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Two Thousand Words That Do Not Mention the Economic Crisis of 2008

An Essay on Art Theory That Ends With a Philosophy of Bathroom Accessories: A Non-Review of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct

Cross-posted by Jerry Cullum to and

I guess one of the commonplaces of anybody’s college education back in the day was that the fundamental challenge of twentieth century intellectual life was how to reconcile Marx, Freud, and Darwin.

I used to add the symbolic names of Kropotkin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Jung purely as shorthand, to indicate early divergences of opinion from the previous three estimable European gentlemen rather than unequivocal agreement with any one of the competition.

However, after one added the later contributions from Fanon and his successors, and the theorists of gender, and the sciences symbolized by cybernetics, one saw quickly just how much those three founding fathers left out of their (purely metaphorical) equations. (The attempt to make the word “equations” literal, to enlist the prestige of mathematical precision for the human sciences, is yet another story, a very long one.)

I leave physics out of the picture because it is hard to fit Einstein into the human sciences, simply because of the scale of the processes involved. As a thinker whose name I shall not mention put it, the scale creates the phenomenon. Or as in the movie Adaptation’s memorable satire, narratives that begin with the galaxies and end with genetics miss a few key points along the way.

And yet we ought to treat “the human sciences” as sciences, unmathematical though most of them largely are and ought to remain. That French term for anthropology and all the rest is quite accurate; we are in quest of a twenty-first century science of how humanity functions in its social context as well as its environmental one, and the problem is that we can’t afford to forget the state of research in any of the disciplines. We shouldn’t read the previously mentioned foundational texts in the understanding of the human enterprise any more uncritically than we would read foundational texts in medicine or in the so-called pure sciences.

The point I have made many times over in my joculum blog, however, is that just as Sir Isaac Newton set forth some principles that are modified or set in new contexts, not overthrown, the earliest advocates of a “science of man” (as it was called in less gender-inclusive times) may have hit upon some ways of understanding the problem that should be taken seriously but not uncritically. And those advocates stretch farther back into history and in geographic location than the European nineteenth century.

What brings all this up is a review copy of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, scheduled for publication by Bloomsbury Press in…well, one learns not to trust publication dates, but officially very early in 2009. So there will be time before then to engage with the book in detail, rather than picking up on early chapters plus a significant later segment, as this present essay does.

Dutton is the founder of the Arts and Letters Daily website that writes teasers about and links to a range of provocative discussions, from popular to accessibly theorietical, in areas of, well, well nigh all the arts and sciences (encompassed by the term “letters”), though some of the arts and some of the sciences get shorter shrift than others. There is no guarantee of what one will find when one clicks on the link; the journal to which one navigates may be left-wing or right-wing, mainstream or revisionist, but always interesting and always containing a logically argued discussion of the topic at hand, and one can waste enormous amounts of time clicking through to, sometimes, half a dozen differing debates on the same hot topic.

So a book by Dutton comes with massive expectations, and it’s inevitable that this attempt to interpret art via Darwinism is a disappointment. Dutton founded the journal Philosophy and Literature, after all, even if Arts and Letters Daily approaches being the longed-for Journal of Just About Everything, and our predilections and presuppositions shape and distort our perceptions. (“Peter Piper picked”…sorry, the plethora of philosophic terms that begin with “p” frequently result in spates of alliteration like that regrettable lapse in style.)

My aside about prose style is to the point, though Dutton’s book is reasonably well written. Just as we tend to overlook the subjective effect of style when we are constructing an argument (otherwise, academicians would write better than they do), we tend to skip over the aspects of a problem that do not interest us, or, worse, we deny that they have anything to do with the problem.

Dutton’s quarrel with aesthetician and art critic Arthur Danto early on in the book is a case in point. Discussing why Komar and Melamid’s humorous “most wanted paintings” are revelatory even as they make fun of statisticians, Dutton misses what ought to be his main point. He rightly sees that just as with a culture’s favorite foods, such as hamburgers, pizza, ice cream, and chocolate for Americans, people who say they like certain things in a realist painting don’t mean that they would like to have them all mixed together at the same time.

But having heavy-handedly dismissed K and M’s witty paintings as a con rather than a joke with a serious point, Dutton argues that the worldwide preference for landscape cannot be overlooked, especially since the sorts of landscape involved are not always commonplace in the countries surveyed.

Danto argues that the preference of Kenyans for Hudson River School types of landscape reflects the global distribution of bad calendar art. Dutton argues that it’s the consequence of evolutionary preferences for certain features of the environment that became less a part of the human story as we spread out from our points of origin, places that obviously did not include upstate New York but that shared some of its geological features. Natural selection, according to Dutton’s interpretation of others’ hypotheses, made us a species hard-wired to prefer certain types of advantageous surroundings, and thus our hearts leap when we see representations of them.

Maybe. But bad calendar art also codifies whatever predilections are hard-wired into us by virtue of who survived to have offspring, and the story of evolution is not that simplistic.

Dutton goes on, however, to discuss the cross-cultural nature of aesthetics in ways that offend against the ruling pieties in ways that are potentially highly productive. He points out, for example, that not only do most of the constitutive factors of art occur in the vast majority of cultures whether they use the category of “art” or not, but the notion of the anonymous creator has been greatly exaggerated. In his field research in the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, he found that groups still leading a traditional lifestyle had well-defined ideas as to what made a Sepik carving good or bad, and everyone knew who the good artists were. Anyone who paid attention to such things in the Sepik culture could tell at a glance who had made what.

In fact, ethnographic museums now pay attention to who made what, too (as I noticed years ago in a Dutch show on the carvers among the Asmat of West Papua), and I suppose in small societies in which artworks are made of perishable materials, there is less inclination to recite the names of illustrious forebears and originators of artistic styles, lists of ancestors such as one might find in lineage-oriented cultures like those in West Africa.

I omit a discussion of African aesthetics because I don’t remember enough of the evidence to make any statements I would trust, but overall Dutton makes a fairly relentless case for human universality, for similarities that outweigh differences in terms of emotional reactions to art—even though the range of responses ought to make us suspicious of Family-of-Man-style sentimentality.

I haven’t read more than random fractions of the book and am thus reluctant to state that Dutton simply overestimates the impact of evolutionary factors, but I suspect he does. In an era in which we have learned that culture actually can reprogram not just outward behavior but certain autonomic physical processes, the feedback loops of what we once thought were nature-and-culture dichotomies really do need to be looked at differently.

And this is so even if, as researchers are finding with twins raised apart and adoptive children raised together, nature is beating out nurture almost every time. It is the “almost” that counts most here. We may be genetically predisposed to like sweet foods more than other people do, but whether we prefer Moon Pies or red bean ice cream is a matter of cultural variables. There are people in this world who like both equally, but not because their genes made them that way.

I have gone through this fourteen-hundred-word digression (commonplace in the joculum journal, to which I shall cross-post this) to get to the point that made me feel I needed to grapple with this book immediately.

Dutton is apparently downright offended by the elevation of what art theorists themselves call “anti-art,” or art that overrides visual stimuli in favor of conceptual issues. He is scarcely the only intellectual to have had this reaction, rather than simply accepting that it is possible to love Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Henry Darger, Hans Haacke, Bill Traylor, Mel Chin, Julian Schnabel, David Hammons, and in general everything from Paleolithic cave paintings to video projections. (Okay, maybe not Julian Schnabel.)

So Dutton comes down hard on the prototype of the anti-retinal revolution, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. I’m not sure that he himself is aware of his loaded language in the discussion, since he discusses the “aesthetic problems” of this chapter in terms of the “evolved human excellences” that feed into our “self-designed species,” which exists along a continuum at the end of which “rational choice and innate intuitions can overlap and reinforce one another.”

This is where evolutionary theory starts siding towards philistinism, whether the topic under discussion is art or religion or pretty much anything that involves the human imagination as distinct from our computational abilities. (I’m still grappling with John Johnston’s lovely book on The Allure of Machinic Life in which consciousness is regarded as computational…which it would be, were it not the sum total of so many bodily processes that those actually doing work in the field observe that the biochemical complexities shade off in an immense number of directions.)

So Dutton gets into high dudgeon about the line that leads from Duchamp’s urinal to Manzoni’s can of artist’s excrement, which latter is a joke comparable to the Komar and Melamid paintings that roused Dutton’s ire at the beginning of his book. Dutton doesn’t find many things funny, but neither do the art theorists he rages against.

And he and the art theorists alike misunderstand Duchamp as badly as Duchamp himself did. Because Fountain is, as someone else has pointed out and I concur unreservedly, actually a rather beautiful work of retinal art, comparable to Picasso’s discovery of a bull’s horns in a bicycle part.

Duchamp turned his found object ninety degrees, which immediately made it resemble the niche that is a feature of so much traditional architecture, often as the setting for a basin of water (or, indeed, for a faucet or a drinking fountain). Duchamp saw the formal architecture of a urinal and turned it into a visual joke that seems to have been a joke on himself as much as on anyone else. For the work, once rendered functionless, was as much a piece of sculpture as the Michael Graves toilet brush that can still be had at Target stores. Duchamp’s urinal, like Graves’ toilet brush, has more in common with the history of gracefully shaped vessels than with the history of bathroom accessories.

Rotated ninety degrees and functioning as a niche rather than a urinal (for as a piece of sculpture it could no longer be used for its original function), if one were to hook Fountain up to its intended plumbing and then flush, the water would spurt more or less upwards and form…a fountain. It would be a piece of participatory kinetic sculpture.

So Dutton doesn’t get it. But neither did Duchamp, as far as we know.

And I wish I could remember who it was who pointed out that the urinal is not just hauled into the gallery and plopped down untransformed except for the “R. Mutt” signature.

And if neither Dutton nor Duchamp completely understand why they are pursuing more agendas than they think they are pursuing…why, my goodness, we are back to Freud at the very least, and easily right back to the whole problem with which I began this essay.